It’s common for horror movies, particularly slashers, to slowly whittle the core character group down until the sole surviving protagonist is left to neutralize the threat. Movies that still rely on this tired trope usually end up disappointing because they fail to bring viewers to identify with the characters, who make on-screen decisions that are laughably unjustifiable and break the tension.
There is no form better suited, however, to immersing audiences in the role of the vulnerable, irrational protagonist besieged by dangers than the survival horror video game subgenre.
Unlike most other games, survival horror titles view combat as avoidable or downright undesirable, instead centering game design on resource management, puzzle-solving and traversal of convoluted, mazelike maps. Most enemies are capable of easily killing players, especially since ammo and health pickups are scarce, forcing players to carefully decide which encounters actually warrant a guns-blazing approach.
These constant decisions generate the tension missing from by-the-numbers horror fiction and films, making survival horror games’ bone-chilling atmosphere incredibly effective. Here, we’ve listed three of the scariest survival horror video games ever made.
Resident Evil 2 (2019)
Japanese developer Capcom largely codified the survival horror genre with its early Resident Evil games. Released in 1998, just two years after the first title revolutionized horror game development, the original Resident Evil 2 innovated in scope and variety of gameplay but kept its predecessor’s now-dated, Hollywood-inspired fixed camera perspectives.
Over two decades later — after Capcom took the series on a strange detour into action-adventure territory before self-correcting to horror — a ground-up, over-the-shoulder camera remake of Resident Evil 2 was released. Like the 1998 game, the Resident Evil 2 remake interweaves the stories of rookie police officer Leon and college student Claire, who each attempt to survive the outbreak of a weaponized virus in densely populated Raccoon City.
The new Resident Evil 2 masterfully updates the original game’s environments, characters and gameplay to current technical standards while remaining faithful where it counts. The 2019 version of the lavish, creepily lit Raccoon Police headquarters manages to amplify the intense dread of exploring the iconic original location. The remake’s fluid camera makes Resident Evil 2 much more accessible but never spoils the terrifying surprises lurking just beyond the sensory threshold. For players seeking entry into the subgenre, the Resident Evil 2 remake is the perfect introduction to survival horror.
Dead Space (2008)
While working on Dead Space, creator Glen Schofield would refer to his concept for a new horror experience as “Resident Evil in space.” This description is fairly accurate, but Dead Space is also so much more.
Players control Isaac Clarke, a space engineer on a routine repair job gone wrong. Caught on a mining frigate infested with deadly creatures called necromorphs, Isaac must fight his way to an escape using whatever tools he can find. Dead Space’s various necromorph types are some of the most memorable gaming antagonists, not only because of the endless diversity of character model grotesquery but also because they make for totally unique combat. Since necromorphs can only be killed through dismemberment, Dead Space forces players to focus attacks on appendages and to pay strategic attention to map geography.
Dead Space also differentiates itself from other survival horror with its minimalistic presentation. Instead of disruptive health bars, aiming reticles and ammo counters, Schofield and the development team at the now-defunct Visceral Games chose to incorporate all heads-up display elements into the character and weapon design. Simple innovations, such as making player health visible on Isaac’s spine, create a much more immersive experience, allowing greater screen space to be used for atmosphere instead of information.
Alien: Isolation (2014)
Alien: Isolation is a love letter to Ridley Scott’s 1979 sci-fi horror masterpiece “Alien.” Isolation sees Amanda Ripley arrive at Sevastopol station in search of her mother Ellen, who has been missing since the events of the film. Once aboard, players find Sevastopol in shambles and are given the underpants-soiling objective of surviving Scott’s xenomorph. Not only are environment and character designs from the film carefully recreated, but new designs flow naturally out of the original art style, making Isolation feel more authentic than any other game in the “Alien” franchise.
The key element that elevates Isolation above other survival horror games is its complex xenomorph artificial intelligence. Though the alien only appears sporadically as the narrative takes players all across Sevastopol, its persistent unseen presence — in the form of terror-inducing footsteps in overhead vents or occasional droplets of acid drool — constantly keeps tensions high.
As with Scott’s film, the alien is essentially invincible. Players cannot kill it, but they can evade it using the motion tracker and carefully timed gadgets. As players master the game’s mechanics, however, the xenomorph’s tactics adapt to counteract familiar strategies. These features prevent players from ever settling into a comfortable gameplay loop, crafting a tense atmosphere that, as with Resident Evil 2 and Dead Space, is perfect for Halloween time.
Neil Haeems covers video games. Contact him at [email protected].